The men pretended that this was what might have been expected from the beginning, but by this time the Berserker madness had possessed Miss Macroyd, too; she left her throne of snow and came forward shouting that it had been perfectly fair, and that the men had been really beaten, and they had no right to pretend that they had given themselves up purposely. The sex-partisanship, which is such a droll fact in women when there is any question of their general opposition to men, possessed them all, and they stood as, one girl for the reality of their triumph. This did not prevent them from declaring that the men had behaved with outrageous unfairness, and that the only one who fought with absolute sincerity from first to last was Mr. Verrian.
Neither their unity of conviction concerning the general fact nor the surprising deduction from it in Verrian's case operated to make them refuse the help of their captives in getting home. When they had bound up their tumbled hair, in some cases, and repaired the ravages of war among their feathers and furs and draperies, in other cases, they accepted the hands of the late enemy at difficult points of the path. But they ran forward when they neared the house, and they were prompt to scream upon Mrs. Westangle that there never had been such a success or such fun, and that they were almost dead, and soon as they had something to eat they were going to bed and never going to get up again.
In the details which they were able to give at luncheon, they did justice to Verrian's noble part in the whole affair, which had saved the day, not only in keeping them up to the work when they had got thinking it couldn't be carried through, but in giving the combat a validity which it would not have had without him. They had to thank him, next to Mrs. Westangle herself, whom they praised beyond any articulate expression, for thinking up such a delightful thing. They wondered how she could ever have thought of it—such a simple thing too; and they were sure that when people heard of it they would all be wanting to have snow battles.
Mrs. Westangle took her praises as passively, if not as modestly, as Verrian received his. She made no show of disclaiming them, but she had the art, invaluable in a woman who meant to go far in the line she had chosen, of not seeming to have done anything, or of not caring whether people liked it or not. Verrian asked himself, as he watched her twittering back at those girls, and shedding equally their thanks and praises from her impermeable plumage, how she would have behaved if Miss Shirley's attempt had been an entire failure. He decided that she would have ignored the failure with the same impersonality as that with which she now ignored the success. It appeared that in one point he did her injustice, for when he went up to dress for dinner after the long stroll he took towards night he found a note under his door, by which he must infer that Mrs. Westangle had not kept the real facts of her triumph from the mistress of the revels.
"DEAR MR. VERRIAN, I am not likely to see you, but I must thank you. M. SHIRLEY. "P. S. Don't try to answer, please."
Verrian liked, the note, he even liked the impulse which had dictated it, and he understood the impulse; but he did not like getting the note. If Miss Shirley meant business in taking up the line of life she had professed to have entered upon seriously, she had better, in the case of a young man whose acquaintance she had chanced to make, let her gratitude wait. But when did a woman ever mean business, except in the one great business?
To have got that sillily superfluous note to Verrian without any one's knowing besides, Miss Shirley must have stolen to his door herself and slipped it under. In order to do this unsuspected and unseen, she must have found out in some sort that would not give her away which his room was, and then watched her chance. It all argued a pervasiveness in her, after such a brief sojourn in the house, and a mastery of finesse that he did not like, though, he reflected, he was not authorized to like or dislike anything about her. He was thirty-seven years old, and he had not lived through that time, with his mother at his elbow to suggest inferences from facts, without being versed in wiles which, even when they were honest, were always wiles, and in lures which, when they were of the most gossamer tenuity, were yet of texture close enough to make the man who blundered through them aware that they had been thrown across his path. He understood, of course, that they were sometimes helplessly thrown across it, and were mere expressions of abstract woman with relation to abstract man, but that did not change their nature. He did not abhor them, but he believed he knew them, and he believed now that he detected one of them in Miss Shirley's note. Of course, one could take another view of it. One could say to one's self that she was really so fervently grateful that she could not trust some accident to bring them together in a place where she was merely a part of the catering, as she said, and he was a guest, and that she was excusable, or at least mercifully explicable, in her wish to have him know that she appreciated his goodness. Verrian had been very good, he knew that; he had saved the day for the poor thing when it was in danger of the dreariest kind of slump. She was a poor thing, as any woman was who had to make her own way, and she had been sick and was charming. Besides, she had found out his name and had probably recognized a quality of celebrity in it, unknown to the other young people with whom he found himself so strangely assorted under Mrs. Westangle's roof.
In the end, and upon the whole, Verrian would rather have liked, if the thing could have been made to happen, meeting Miss Shirley long enough to disclaim meriting her thanks, and to ascribe to the intrinsic value of her scheme the brilliant success it had achieved. This would not have been true, but it would have been encouraging to her; and in the revery which followed upon his conditional desire he had a long imaginary conversation with her, and discussed all her other plans for the revels of the week. These had not the trouble of defining themselves very distinctly in the conversation in order to win his applause, and their consideration did not carry him with Miss Shirley beyond the strictly professional ground on which they met.
She had apparently invented nothing for that evening, and the house party was left to its own resources in dancing and sitting out dances, which apparently fully sufficed it. They were all tired, and broke up early. The women took their candles and went off to bed, and the men went to the billiard-room to smoke. On the way down from his room, where he had gone to put on his smoking-jacket, Verrian met Miss Macroyd coming up, candle in hand, and received from her a tacit intimation that he might stop her for a joking good-night.
"I hope you'll sleep well on your laurels as umpire," he said.
"Oh, thank you," she returned, "and I hope your laurels won't keep you awake. It must seem to you as if it was blowing a perfect gale in them."
"What do you mean? I did nothing."
"Oh, I don't mean your promotion of the snow battle. But haven't you heard?" He stared. "You've been found out!"
"Found out?" Verrian's soul was filled with the joy of literary fame.
"Yes. You can't conceal yourself now. You're Verrian the actor."
"The actor?" Verrian frowned blackly in his disgust, so blackly that Miss Macroyd laughed aloud.
"Yes, the coming matinee idol. One of the girls recognized you as soon as you came into the house, and the name settled it, though, of course, you're supposed to be here incognito."
The mention of that name which he enjoyed in common with the actor made Verrian furious, for when the actor first appeared with it in New York Verrian had been at the pains to find out that it was not his real name, and that he had merely taken it because of the weak quality of romance in it, which Verrian himself had always disliked. But, of course, he could not vent his fury on Miss Macroyd. All he could do was to ask, "Then they have got my photograph on their dressing-tables, with candles burning before it?"
"No, I don't believe I can give you that comfort. The fact is, your acting is not much admired among the girls here, but they think you are unexpectedly nice as a private person."
"That's something. And does Mrs. Westangle think I'm the actor, too?"
"How should Mrs. Westangle know what she thinks? And if she doesn't, how should I?"
"That's true. And are you going to give me away?"
"I haven't done it yet. But isn't it best to be honest?"
"It mightn't be a success."
"My literary celebrity."
"There's that," Miss Macroyd rejoiced. "Well, so far I've merely said I was sure you were not Verrian the actor. I'll think the other part over." She went on up-stairs, with the sound of her laugh following her, and Verrian went gloomily back to the billiard-room, where he found most of the smokers conspicuously yawning. He lighted a fresh cigar, and while he smoked they dropped away one by one till only Bushwick was left.
"Some of the fellows are going Thursday," he said. "Are you going to stick it out to the bitter end?"
Till then it had not occurred to Verrian that he was not going to stay through the week, but now he said, "I don't know but I may go Thursday. Shall you?"
"I might as well stay on. I don't find much doing in real estate at Christmas. Do you?"
This was fishing, but it was better than openly taking him for that actor, and Verrian answered, unresentfully, "I don't know. I'm not in that line exactly."
"Oh, I beg your pardon," Bushwick said. "I thought I had seen your name with that of a West Side concern."
"No, I have a sort of outside connection with the publishing business."
"Oh," Bushwick returned, politely, and it would have been reassuringly if Verrian had wished not to be known as an author. The secret in which he lived in that regard was apparently safe from that young, amiable, good- looking real-estate broker. He inferred, from the absence of any allusion to the superstition of the women as to his profession, that it had not spread to Bushwick at least, and this inclined him the more to like him. They sat up talking pleasantly together about impersonal affairs till Bushwick finished his cigar. Then he started for bed, saying, "Well, good-night. I hope Mrs. Westangle won't have anything so active on the tapis for tomorrow."
"Try and sleep it off. Good-night."
Verrian remained to finish his cigar, but at the end he was not yet sleepy, and he thought he would get a book from the library, if that part of the house were still lighted, and he looked out to see. Apparently it was as brilliantly illuminated as when the company had separated there for the night, and he pushed across the foyer hall that separated the billiard-room from the drawing-zoom and library. He entered the drawing- room, and in the depths of the library, relieved against the rows of books in their glass cases, he startled Miss Shirley from a pose which she seemed to be taking there alone.
At the instant of their mutual recognition she gave a little muted shriek, and then gasped out, "I beg your pardon," while he was saying, too, "I beg your pardon."
After a tacit exchange of forgiveness, he said, "I am afraid I startled you. I was just coming for a book to read myself asleep with. I—"
"Not at all," she returned. "I was just—" Then she did not say what, and he asked:
"Making some studies?"
"Yes," she owned, with reluctant promptness.
"I mustn't ask what," he suggested, and he made an effort to smile away what seemed a painful perturbation in her as he went forward to look at the book-shelves, from which, till then, she had not slipped aside.
"I'm in your way," she said, and he answered, "Not at all." He added to the other sentence he had spoken, "If it's going to be as good as what you gave us today—"
"You are very kind." She hesitated, and then she said, abruptly: "What I did to-day owed everything to you, Mr. Verrian," and while he desisted from searching the book-shelves, she stood looking anxiously at him, with the pulse in her neck visibly throbbing. Her agitation was really painful, but Verrian did not attribute it to her finding herself there alone with him at midnight; for though the other guests had all gone to bed, the house was awake in some of the servants, and an elderly woman came in presently bringing a breadth of silvery gauze, which she held up, asking if it was that.
"Not exactly, but it will do nicely, Mrs. Stager. Would you mind getting me the very pale-blue piece that electric blue?"
"I'm looking for something good and dull," Verrian said, when the woman was gone.
"Travels are good, or narratives, for sleeping on," she said, with a breathless effort for calm. "I found," she panted, "in my own insomnia, that merely the broken-up look of a page of dialogue in a novel racked my nerves so that I couldn't sleep. But narratives were beautifully soothing."
"Thank you," he responded; "that's a good idea." And stooping, with his hands on his knees, he ranged back and forth along the shelves. "But Mrs. Westangle's library doesn't seem to be very rich in narrative."
He had not his mind on the search perhaps, and perhaps she knew it. She presently said, "I wish I dared ask you a favor—I mean your advice, Mr. Verrian."
He lifted himself from his stooping posture and looked at her, smiling. "Would that take much courage?" His smile was a little mocking; he was thinking that a girl who would hurry that note to him, and would personally see that it did not fail to reach him, would have the courage for much more.
She did not reply directly. "I should have to explain, but I know you won't tell. This is going to be my piece de resistance, my grand stunt. I'm going to bring it off the last night." She stopped long enough for Verrian to revise his resolution of going away with the fellows who were leaving the middle of the week, and to decide on staying to the end. "I am going to call it Seeing Ghosts."
"That's good," Verrian said, provisionally.
"Yes, I might say I was surprised at my thinking it up."
"That would be one form of modesty."
"Yes," she said, with a wan smile she had, "and then again it mightn't be another." She went on, abruptly, "As many as like can take part in the performance. It's to be given out, and distinctly understood beforehand, that the ghost isn't a veridical phantom, but just an honest, made-up, every-day spook. It may change its pose from time to time, or its drapery, but the setting is to be always the same, and the people who take their turns in seeing it are to be explicitly reassured, one after another, that there's nothing in it, you know. The fun will be in seeing how each one takes it, after they know what it really is."
"Then you're going to give us a study of temperaments."
"Yes," she assented. And after a moment, given to letting the notion get quite home with her, she asked, vividly, "Would you let me use it?"
"The phrase? Why, certainly. But wouldn't it be rather too psychological? I think just Seeing Ghosts would be better."
"Better than Seeing Ghosts: A Study of Temperaments? Perhaps it would. It would be simpler."
"And in this house you need all the simplicity you can get," he suggested.
She smiled, intelligently but reticently. "My idea is that every one somehow really believes in ghosts—I know I do—and so fully expects to see one that any sort of make-up will affect them for the moment just as if they did see one. I thought—that perhaps—I don't know how to say it without seeming to make use of you—"
"Oh, do make use of me, Miss Shirley!"
"That you could give me some hints about the setting, with your knowledge of the stage—" She stopped, having rushed forward to that point, while he continued to look steadily at her without answering her. She faced him courageously, but not convincingly.
"Did you think that I was an actor?" he asked, finally.
"Mrs. Westangle seemed to think you were."
"But did you?"
"I'm sure I didn't mean—I beg your pardon—"
"It's all right. If I were an actor I shouldn't be ashamed of it. But I was merely curious to know whether you shared the prevalent superstition. I'm afraid I can't help you from a knowledge of the stage, but if I can be of use, from a sort of amateur interest in psychology, with an affair like this I shall be only too glad."
"Thank you," she said, somewhat faintly, with an effect of dismay disproportionate to the occasion.
She sank into a chair before which she had been standing, and she looked as if she were going to swoon.
He started towards her with an alarmed "Miss Shirley."
She put out a hand weakly to stay him. "Don't!" she entreated. "I'm a little—I shall be all right in a moment."
"Can't I get you something—call some one?"
"Not for the world!" she commanded, and she pulled herself together and stood up. "But I think I'll stop for to-night. I'm glad my idea strikes you favorably. It's merely—Oh, you found it, Mrs. Stager!" She broke off to address the woman who had now come back and was holding up the trailing breadths of the electric-blue gauze. "Isn't it lovely?" She gave herself time to adore the drapery, with its changes of meteoric lucence, before she rose and took it. She went with it to the background in the library, where, against the glass door of the cases, she involved herself in it and stood shimmering. A thrill pierced to Verrian's heart; she was indeed wraithlike, so that he hated to have her call, "How will that do ?"
Mrs. Stager modestly referred the question to him by her silence. "I will answer for its doing, if it does for the others as it's done for me."
She laughed. "And you doubly knew what it was. Yes, I think it will go." She took another pose, and then another. "What do you think of it, Mrs. Stager?" she called to the woman standing respectfully abeyant at one side.
"It's awful. I don't know but I'll be afraid to go to my room."
"Sit down, and I'll go to your room with you when I'm through. I won't be long, now."
She tried different gauzes, which she had lying on one of the chairs, and crowned herself with triumph in the applauses of her two spectators, rejoicing with a glee that Verrian found childlike and winning. "If they're all like you, it will be the greatest success!"
"They'll all be like me, and more," he said, "I'm really very severe."
"Are you a severe person?" she asked, coming forward to him. "Ought people to be afraid of you?"
"Yes, people with bad consciences. I'm rattier afraid of myself for that reason."
"Have you got a bad conscience?" she asked, letting her eyes rest on his.
"Yes. I can't make my conduct square with my ideal of conduct."
"I know what that is!" she sighed. "Do you expect to be punished for it?"
"I expect to be got even with."
"Yes, one is. I've noticed that myself. But I didn't suppose that actors—Oh, I forgot! I beg your pardon again, Mr. Verrian. Oh— Goodnight!" She faced him evanescently in going out, with the woman after her, but, whether she did so more in fear or more in defiance, she left him standing motionless in his doubt, and she did nothing to solve his doubt when she came quickly back alone, before he was aware of having moved, to say, "Mr. Verrian, I want to—I have to—tell you that— I didn't think you were the actor." Then she was finally gone, and Verrian had nothing for it but to go up to his room with the book he found he had in his hand and must have had there all the time.
If he had read it, the book would not have eased him off to sleep, but he did not even try, to read it. He had no wish to sleep. The waking dream in which he lost himself was more interesting than any vision of slumber could have been, and he had no desire to end it. In that he could still be talking with the girl whose mystery appealed to him so pleasingly. It was none the less pleasing because, at what might be called her first blushes, she did not strike him as altogether ingenuous, but only able to discipline herself into a final sincerity from a consciousness which had been taught wisdom by experience.
She was still a scarcely recovered invalid, and it was pathetic that she should be commencing the struggle of life with strength so little proportioned to the demand upon it; and the calling she had taken up was of a fantasticality in some aspects which was equally pathetic. But all the undertakings of women, he mused, were piteous, not only because women were unequal to the struggle at the best, but because they were hampered always with themselves, with their sex, their femininity, and the necessity of getting it out of the way before they could really begin to fight. Whatever they attempted it must be in relation to the man's world in which livings were made; but the immemorial conditions were almost wholly unchanged. A woman approached this world as a woman, with the inborn instinct of tempting it as a woman, to win it to love her and make her a wife and mother; and although she might stoically overcome the temptation at last, it might recur at any moment and overcome her. This was perpetually weakening and imperilling her, and she must feel it at the encounter with each man she met. She must feel the tacit and even unconscious irony of his attitude towards her in her enterprise, and the finer her make the crueller and the more humiliating and disheartening this must be.
Of course, this Miss Shirley felt Verrian's irony, which he had guarded from any expression with genuine compassion for her. She must feel that to his knowledge of life she and her experiment had an absurdity which would not pass, whatever their success might be. If she meant business, and business only, they ought to have met as two men would have met, but he knew that they had not done so, and she must have known it. All that was plain sailing enough, but beyond this lay a sea of conjecture in which he found himself without helm or compass. Why, should she have acted a fib about his being an actor, and why, after the end, should she have added an end, in which she returned to own that she had been fibbing? For that was what it came to; and though Verrian tasted a delicious pleasure in the womanish feat by which she overcame her womanishness, he could not puzzle out her motive. He was not sure that he wished to puzzle it out. To remain with illimitable guesses at his choice was more agreeable, for the present at least, and he was not aware of having lapsed from them when he woke so late as to be one of the breakfasters whose plates were kept for them after the others were gone.
It was the first time that Verrian had come down late, and it was his novel experience to find himself in charge of Mrs. Stager at breakfast, instead of the butler and the butler's man, who had hitherto served him at the earlier hour. There were others, somewhat remote from him, at table, who were ending when he was beginning, and when they had joked themselves out of the room and away from Mrs. Stager's ministrations he was left alone to her. He had instantly appreciated a quality of motherliness in her attitude towards him, and now he was sensible of a kindly intimacy to which he rather helplessly addressed himself.
"Well, Mrs. Stager, did you see a ghost on your way to bed?"
"I don't know as I really expected to," she said. "Won't you have a few more of the buckwheats?"
"Do you think I'd better? I believe I won't. They're very tempting. Miss Shirley makes a very good ghost," he suggested.
Mrs. Stager would not at first commit herself further than to say in bringing him the butter, "She's just up from a long fit of sickness." She impulsively added, "She ain't hardly strong enough to be doing what she is, I tell her."
"I understood she had been ill," Verrian said. "We drove over from the station together, the other day."
"Yes," Mrs. Stager admitted. "Kind of a nervous breakdown, I believe. But she's got an awful spirit. Mrs. Westangle don't want her to do all she is doing."
Verrian looked at her in surprise. He had not expected that of the India-rubber nature he had attributed to Mrs. Westangle. In view of Mrs. Stager's privity to the unimagined kindliness of his hostess, he relaxed himself in a further interest in Miss Shirley, as if it would now be safe. "She's done splendidly, so far," he said, meaning the girl. "I'm glad Mrs. Westangle appreciates her work."
"I guess," Mrs. Stager said, "that if it hadn't been for you at the snow- fight—She got back from getting ready for it, that morning, almost down sick, she was afraid so it was going to fail."
"I didn't do anything," Verrian said, putting the praise from him.
Mrs. Stager lowered her voice in an octave of deeper confidentiability. "You got the note? I put it under, and I didn't know."
"Oh yes, I got it," Verrian said, sensible of a relief, which he would not assign to any definite reason, in knowing that Miss Shirley had not herself put it under his door. But he now had to take up another burden in the question whether Miss Shirley were of an origin so much above that of her confidant that she could have a patrician fearlessness in making use of her, or were so near Mrs. Stager's level of life that she would naturally turn to her for counsel and help. Miss Shirley had the accent, the manners, and the frank courage of a lady; but those things could be learned; they were got up for the stage every day.
Verrian was roused from the muse he found he had fallen into by hearing Mrs. Stager ask, "Won't you have some more coffee?"
"No, thank you," he said. And now he rose from the table, on which he dreamily dropped his napkin, and got his hat and coat and went out for a walk. He had not studied the art of fiction so long, in the many private failures that had preceded his one public success, without being made to observe that life sometimes dealt in the accidents and coincidences which his criticism condemned as too habitually the resource of the novelist. Hitherto he had disdained them for this reason; but since his serial story was off his hands, and he was beginning to look about him for fresh material, he had doubted more than once whether his severity was not the effect of an unjustifiable prejudice.
It struck him now, in turning the corner of the woodlot above the meadow where the snow-battle had taken place, and suddenly finding himself face to face with Miss Shirley, that nature was in one of her uninventive moods and was helping herself out from the old stock-in-trade of fiction. All the same, he felt a glow of pleasure, which was also a glow of pity; for while Miss Shirley looked, as always, interesting, she look tired, too, with a sort of desperate air which did not otherwise account for itself. She had given, at sight of him, a little start, and a little "Oh!" dropped from her lips, as if it had been jostled from them. She made haste to go on, with something like the voluntary hardiness of the courage that plucks itself from the primary emotion of fear, "You are going down to try the skating?"
"Do I look it, without skates?"
"You may be going to try the sliding," she returned. "I'm afraid there won't be much of either for long. This soft air is going to make havoc of my plans for to-morrow."
"That's too bad of it. Why not hope for a hard freeze to-night? You might as well. The weather has been known to change its mind. You might even change your plans."
"No, I can't do that. I can't think of anything else. It's to bridge over the day that's left before Seeing Ghosts. If it does freeze, you'll come to Mrs. Westangle's afternoon tea on the pond?"
"I certainly shall. How is it to be worked?"
"She's to have her table on a platform, with runners, in a bower of evergreen boughs, and be pushed about, and the people are to skate up for the tea. There are to be tea and chocolate, and two girls to pour, just as in real life. It isn't a very dazzling idea, but I thought it might do; and Mrs. Westangle is so good-natured. Now, if the thermometer will do its part!"
"I am sure it will," Verrian said, but a glance at the gray sky did not confirm him in his prophetic venture. The snow was sodden under foot; a breath from the south stirred the pines to an Aeolian response and moved the stiff, dry leaves of the scrub-oaks. A sapsucker was marking an accurate circle of dots round the throat of a tall young maple, and enjoying his work in a low, guttural soliloquy, seemingly, yet, dismayingly, suggestive of spring.
"It's lovely, anyway," she said, following his glance with an upward turn of her face.
"Yes, it's beautiful. I think this sort of winter day is about the best the whole year can do. But I will sacrifice the chance of another like it to your skating-tea, Miss Shirley."
He did not know why he should have made this speech to her, but apparently she did, and she said, "You're always coming to my help, Mr. Verrian."
"Don't mention it!"
"I won't, then," she said, with a smile that showed her thin face at its thinnest and left her lip caught on her teeth till she brought it down voluntarily. It was a small but full lip and pretty, and this trick of it had a fascination. She added, gravely, "I don't believe you will like my ice-tea."
"I haven't any active hostility to it. You can't always be striking twelve—twelve midnight—as you will be in Seeing Ghosts. But your ice- tea will do very well for striking five. I'm rather elaborate!"
"Not too elaborate to hide your real opinion. I wonder what you do think of my own elaboration—I mean of my scheme."
They had moved on, at his turning to walk with her, so as not to keep her standing in the snow, and now she said, looking over her shoulder at him, "I've decided that it won't do to let the ghost have all the glory. I don't think it will be fair to let the people merely be scared, even when they've been warned that they're to see a ghost and told it isn't real."
She seemed to refer the point to him, and he said, provisionally, "I don't know what more they can ask."
"They can ask questions. I'm going to let each person speak to the ghost, if not scared dumb, and ask it just what they please; and I'm going to answer their questions if I can."
"Won't it be something of an intellectual strain?"
"Yes, it will. But it will be fun, too, a little, and it will help the thing to go off. What do you think?"
"I think it's fine. Are you going to give it out, so that they can be studying up their questions?"
"No, their questions have got to be impromptu. Or, at least, the first one has. Of course, after the scheme has once been given away, the ghost-seers will be more or less prepared, and the ghost will have to stand it."
"I think it's great. Are you going to let me have a chance with a question?"
"Are you going to see a ghost?"
"To be sure I am. May I really ask it what I please?"
"If you're honest."
"Oh, I shall be honest—"
He stopped breathlessly, but she did not seem called upon to supply any meaning for his abruptness. "I'm awfully glad you like the idea," she said, "I have had to think the whole thing out for myself, and I haven't been quite certain that the question-asking wasn't rather silly, or, at least, sillier than the rest. Thank you so much, Mr. Verrian."
"I've thought of my question," he began again, as abruptly as he had stopped before. "May I ask it now?"
Cries of laughter came up from the meadow below, and the voices seemed coming nearer.
"Oh, I mustn't be seen!" Miss Shirley lamented. "Oh, dear! If I'm seen the whole thing is given away. What shall I do?" She whirled about and ran down the road towards a path that entered the wood.
He ran after her. "My question is, May I come to see you when you get back to town?"
"Yes, certainly. But don't come now! You mustn't be seen with me! I'm not supposed to be in the house at all."
If Verrian's present mood had been more analytic, it might have occurred to him that the element of mystery which Miss Shirley seemed to cherish in regard to herself personally was something that she could dramatically apply with peculiar advantage to the phantasmal part she was to take in her projected entertainment. But he was reduced from the exercise of his analytic powers to a passivity in which he was chiefly conscious of her pathetic fascination. This seemed to emanate from her frail prettiness no less than from the sort of fearful daring with which she was pushing her whole enterprise through; it came as much from her undecided blondness—from her dust-colored hair, for instance—as from the entreating look of her pinched eyes, only just lighting their convalescent fires, and from the weakness that showed, with the grace, in her run through the wintry woods, where he watched her till the underbrush thickened behind her and hid her from him. Altogether his impression was very complex, but he did not get so far even as the realization of this, in his mental turmoil, as he turned with a deep sigh and walked meditatively homeward through the incipient thaw.
It did not rain at night, as it seemed so likely to do, and by morning the cloudiness of the sky had so far thinned that the sun looked mildly through it without more than softening the frozen surface of the pond, so that Mrs. Westangle's ice-tea (as everybody called it, by a common inspiration, or by whatever circuitous adoption of Verrian's phrase) came off with great success. People from other houses were there, and they all said that they wondered how she came to have such a brilliant idea, and they kept her there till nearly dark. Then the retarded rain began, in a fine drizzle, and her house guests were forced homeward, but not too soon to get a good, long rest before dressing for dinner. She was praised for her understanding with the weather, and for her meteorological forecast as much as for her invention in imagining such a delightful and original thing as an ice-tea, which no one else had ever thought of. Some of the women appealed to Verrian to say if he had ever heard of anything like it; and they felt that Mrs. Westangle was certainly arriving, and by no beaten track.
None of the others put it in these terms, of course; it was merely a consensus of feeling with them, and what was more articulate was dropped among the ironies with which Miss Macroyd more confidentially celebrated the event. Out of hearing of the others, in slowly following them with Verrian, she recurred to their talk. "Yes, it's only a question of money enough for Newport, after this. She's chic now, and after a season there she will be smart. But oh, dear! How came she to be chic? Can you imagine?"
Verrian did not feel bound to a categorical answer, and in his private reflections he dealt with another question. This was how far Miss Shirley was culpable in the fraud she was letting Mrs. Westangle practise on her innocent guests. It was a distasteful question, and he did not find it much more agreeable when it subdivided itself into the question of necessity on her part, and of a not very clearly realized situation on Mrs. Westangle's. The girl had a right to sell her ideas, and perhaps the woman thought they were her own when she had paid for them. There could be that view of it all. The furtive nature of Miss Shirley's presence in the house might very well be a condition of that grand event she was preparing. It was all very mysterious.
It rained throughout the evening, with a wailing of the wind in the gables, and a weeping and a sobbing of the water from the eaves that Mrs. Westangle's guests, securely housed from the storm, made the most of for weirdness. There had been a little dancing, which gave way to so much sitting-out that the volunteer music abruptly ceased as if in dudgeon, and there was nothing left but weirdness to bring young hearts together. Weirdness can do a good deal with girls lounging in low chairs, and young men on rugs round a glowing hearth at their feet; and every one told some strange thing that had happened at first hand, or second or third hand, either to himself or herself, or to their fathers or brothers or grandmothers or old servants. They were stimulated in eking out these experiences not only by the wildness of the rain without, but by the mystery of being shut off from the library into the drawing-room and hall while the preparations for the following night were beginning. But weirdness is not inexhaustible, even when shared on such propitious terms between a group of young people rapidly advanced in intimacy by a week's stay under the same roof, and at the first yawn a gay dispersion of the votaries ended it all.
The yawn came from Bushwick, who boldly owned, when his guilt was brought home to him, that he was sleepy, and then as he expected to be scared out of a year's growth the next night, and not be able to sleep for a week afterwards, he was now going to bed. He shook hands with Mrs. Westangle for good-night. The latest to follow him was Verrian, who, strangely alert, and as far from drowsiness as he had ever known himself, was yet more roused by realizing that Mrs. Westangle was not letting his hand go at once, but, unless it was mere absent-mindedness, was conveying through it the wish to keep him. She fluttered a little more closely up to him, and twittered out, "Miss Shirley wants me to let you know that she has told me about your coming together, and everything."
"Oh, I'm very glad," Verrian said, not sure that it was the right thing.
"I don't know why she feels so, but she has a right to do as she pleases about it. She's not a guest."
"No," Verrian assented.
"It happens very well, though, for the ghost-seeing that people don't know she's here. After that I shall tell them. In fact, she wants me to, for she must be on the lookout for other engagements. I am going to do everything I can for her, and if you hear of anything—"
Verrian bowed, with a sense of something offensive in her words which he could not logically feel, since it was a matter of business and was put squarely on a business basis. "I should be very glad," he said, noncommittally.
"She was sure from the first," Mrs. Westangle went on, as if there were some relation between the fact and her request, "that you were not the actor. She knew you were a writer."
"Oh, indeed!" Verrian said.
"I thought that if you were writing for the newspapers you might know how to help her-"
"I'm not a newspaper writer," Verrian answered, with a resentment which she seemed to feel, for she said, with a sort of apology in her tone:
"Oh! Well, I don't suppose it matters. She doesn't know I'm speaking to you about that; it just came into my head. I like to help in a worthy object, you know. I hope you'll have a good night's rest."
She turned and looked round with the air of distraction which she had after speaking to any one, and which Verrian fancied came as much from a paucity as from a multiplicity of suggestion in her brain, and so left him standing. But she came back to say, "Of course, it's all between ourselves till after to-morrow night, Mr. Verrian."
"Oh, certainly," he replied, and went vaguely off in the direction of the billiard-room. It was light and warm there, though the place was empty, and he decided upon a cigar as a proximate or immediate solution. He sat smoking before the fire till the tobacco's substance had half turned into a wraith of ash, and not really thinking of anything very definitely, except the question whether he should be able to sleep after he went to bed, when he heard a creeping step on the floor. He turned quickly, with a certain expectance in his nerves, and saw nothing more ghostly than Bushwick standing at the corner of the table and apparently hesitating how to speak to him.
He said, "Hello!" and at this Bushwick said:
"Well?" Verrian asked, looking at him.
"How does it happen you're up so late, after everybody else is wrapped in slumber?"
"I might ask the same of you."
"Well, I found I wasn't making it a case of sleep, exactly, and so I got up."
"Well, I hadn't gone to bed for much the same reason. Why couldn't you sleep? A real-estate broker ought to have a clean conscience."
"So ought a publisher, for that matter. What do you think of this ghost- dance, anyway?"
"It might be amusing—if it fails." Verrian was tempted to add the condition by the opportunity for a cynicism which he did not feel. It is one of the privileges of youth to be cynical, whether or no.
Bushwick sat down before the fire and rubbed his shins with his two hands unrestfully, drawing in a long breath between his teeth. "These things get on to my nerves sometimes. I shouldn't want the ghost-dance to fail."
"On Mrs. Westangle's account?"
"I guess Mrs. Westangle could stand it. Look here!" It was rather a customary phrase of his, Verrian noted. As he now used it he looked alertly round at Verrian, with his hands still on his shins. "What's the use of our beating round the bush?"
Verrian delayed his answer long enough to decide against the aimless pun of asking, "What Bushwick?" and merely asked, "What bush?"
"The bush where the milk in the cocoanut grows. You don't pretend that you believe Mrs. Westangle has been getting up all these fairy stunts?"
Verrian returned to his cigar, from which the ashen wraith dropped into his lap. "I guess you'll have to be a little clearer." But as Bushwick continued silently looking at him, the thing could not be left at this point, and he was obliged to ask of his own initiative, "How much do you know?"
Bushwick leaned back in his chair, with his eyes still on Verrian's profile. "As much as Miss Macroyd could tell me."
"Ah, I'm still in the dark," Verrian politely regretted, but not with a tacit wish to wring Miss Macroyd's neck, which he would not have known how to account for.
"Well, she says that Mrs. Westangle has a professional assistant who's doing the whole job for her, and that she came down on the same train with herself and you."
"Did she say that she grabbed the whole victoria for herself and maid at the station?" Verrian demanded, in a burst of rage, "and left us to get here the best way we could?"
Bushwick grinned. "She supposed there were other carriages, and when she found there weren't she hurried the victoria back for you."
"You think she believes all that? I'm glad she has the decency to be ashamed of her behavior."
"I'm not defending her. Miss Macroyd knows how to take care of herself."
The matter rather dropped for the moment, in which Bushwick filled a pipe he took from his pocket and lighted it. After the first few whiffs he took it from his mouth, and, with a droll look across at Verrian, said, "Who was your fair friend?"
If Verrian was going to talk of this thing, he was not going to do it with the burden of any sort of reserve or contrivance on his soul. "This afternoon?" Bushwick nodded; and Verrian added, "That was she." Then he went on, wrathfully: "She's a girl who has to make her living, and she's doing it in a new way that she's invented for herself. She has supposed that the stupid rich, or the lazy rich, who want to entertain people may be willing to pay for ideas, and she proposes to supply the ideas for a money consideration. She's not a guest in the house, and she won't take herself on a society basis at all. I don't know what her history is, and I don't care. She's a lady by training, and, if she had the accent, I should say she was from the South, for she has the enterprise of the South that comes North and tries to make its living. It's all inexpressibly none of my business, but I happen to be knowing to so much of the case, and if you're knowing to anything else, Mr. Bushwick, I want you to get it straight. That's why I'm talking of it, and not because I think you've any right to know anything about it."
"Thank you," Bushwick returned, unruffled. "It's about what Miss Macroyd told me. That's the reason I don't want the ghost-dance to fail."
Verrian did not notice him. He found it more important to say: "She's so loyal to Mrs. Westangle that she wouldn't have wished, in Mrs. Westangle's interest, to have her presence, or her agency in what is going on, known; but, of course, if Mrs. Westangle chooses to, tell it, that's her affair."
"She would have had to tell it, sooner or later, Mrs. Westangle would; and she only told it to Miss Macroyd this afternoon on compulsion, after Miss Macroyd and I had seen you in the wood-road, and Mrs. Westangle had to account for the young lady's presence there in your company. Then Miss Macroyd had to tell me; but I assure you, my dear fellow, the matter hasn't gone any further."
"Oh, it's quite indifferent to me," Verrian retorted. "I'm nothing but a dispassionate witness of the situation."
"Of course," Bushwick assented, and then he added, with a bonhomie really so amiable that a man with even an unreasonable grudge could hardly resist it, "If you call it dispassionate."
Verrian could not help laughing. "Well, passionate, then. I don't know why it should be so confoundedly vexatious. But somehow I would have chosen Miss Macroyd—Is she specially dear to you?"
"Not the least!"
"I would have chosen her as the last person to have the business, which is so inexpressibly none of my business—"
"Or mine, as I think you remarked," Bushwick interposed.
"Come out through," Verrian concluded, accepting his interposition with a bow.
"I see what you mean," Bushwick said, after a moment's thought. "But, really, I don't think it's likely to go further. If you want to know, I believe Miss Macroyd feels the distinction of being in the secret so much that she'll prefer to hint round till Mrs. Westangle gives the thing away. She had to tell me, because I was there with her when she saw you with the young lady, to keep me from going with my curiosity to you. Come, I do think she's honest about it."
"Don't you think they're rather more dangerous when they're honest?"
"Well, only when they're obliged to be. Cheer up! I don't believe Miss Macroyd is one to spoil sport."
"Oh, I think I shall live through it," Verrian said, rather stiffening again. But he relaxed, in rising from his chair, and said, "Well, good- night, old fellow. I believe I shall go to bed now."
"You won't wait for me till my pipe's out?"
"No, I think not. I seem to be just making it, and if I waited I might lose my grip." He offered Bushwick a friendly hand.
"Do you suppose it's been my soothing conversation? I'm like the actor that the doctor advised to go and see himself act. I can't talk myself sleepy."
"You might try it," Verrian said, going out.
The men who had talked of going away on Thursday seemed to have found it practicable to stay. At any rate, they were all there on the Saturday night for the ghost-seeing, and, of course, none of the women had gone. What was more remarkable, in a house rather full of girls, nobody was sick; or, at least, everybody was well enough to be at dinner, and, after dinner, at the dance, which impatiently, if a little ironically, preceded the supernatural part of the evening's amusement. It was the decorum of a woman who might have been expected not to have it that Mrs. Westangle had arranged that the evening's amusement should not pass the bound between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The supper was to be later, but that was like other eating and drinking on the Sabbath; and it was to be a cold supper.
At half-past ten the dancing stopped in the foyer and the drawing-room, and by eleven the guests were all seated fronting the closed doors of the library. There were not so many of them but that in the handsome space there was interval enough to lend a desired distance to the apparitions; and when the doors were slid aside it was applausively found that there was a veil of gauze falling from the roof to the floor, which promised its aid in heightening the coming mystery. This was again heightened by the universal ignorance as to how the apparitions were to make their advents and on what terms.
It was with an access of a certain nervous anxiety that Verrian found himself next Miss Macroyd, whose frank good-fellowship first expressed itself in a pleasure at the chance which he did not share, and then extended to a confidential sympathy for the success of the enterprise which he did not believe she felt. She laughed, but 'sotto voce', in bending her head close to his and whispering, "I hope she'll be equal to her 'mise en scene'. It's really very nice. So simple." Besides the gauze veil, there was no preparation except in the stretch of black drapery which hid the book-shelves at the farther wall of the library.
"Mrs. Westangle's note is always simplicity," Verrian returned.
"Oh yes, indeed! And you wish to keep up the Westangle convention?"
"I don't see any reason for dropping it."
"Oh, none in the world," she mocked.
He determined to push her, since she had tried to push him, and he asked, "What reason could there be?"
"Now, Mr. Verrian, asking a woman for a reason! I shall begin to think some one else wrote your book, too! Perhaps she'll take up supplying ideas to authors as well as hostesses. Of course, I mean Mrs. Westangle."
Verrian wished he had not tried to push Miss Macroyd, and he was still grinding his teeth in a vain endeavor to get out some fit retort between them, when he saw Bushwick shuffling to his feet, in the front row of the spectators, and heard him beginning a sort of speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen: Mrs. Westangle has chosen me, because a real- estate broker is sometimes an auctioneer, and may be supposed to have the gift of oratory, to make known the conditions on which you may interview the ghosts which you are going to see. Anybody may do it who will comply with the conditions. In the first place, you have got to be serious, and to think up something that you would really like to know about your past, present, or future. Remember, this is no joking matter, and the only difference between the ghost that you will see here and a real materialization under professional auspices is that the ghost won't charge you anything. Of course, if any lady or gentleman—especially lady—wishes to contribute to any charitable object, after a satisfactory interview with the ghost, a hat will be found at the hall-door for the purpose, and Mrs. Westangle will choose the object: I have put in a special plea for my own firm, at a season when the real-estate business is not at its best." By this time Bushwick had his audience laughing, perhaps the more easily because they were all more or less in a hysterical mood, which, whether we own it or not, is always induced by an approximation to the supernatural. He frowned and said, "NO laughing!" and then they laughed the more. When he had waited for them to be quiet he went on gravely, "The conditions are simply these: Each person who chooses may interview the ghost, keeping a respectful distance, but not so far off but that the ghost can distinctly hear a stage whisper. The question put must be seriously meant, and it must be the question which the questioner would prefer to have answered above everything else at the time being. Certain questions will be absolutely ruled out, such as, 'Does Maria love me?' or, 'Has Reuben ever been engaged before?' The laughter interrupted the speaker again, and Verrian hung his head in rage and shame; this stupid ass was spoiling the hope of anything beautiful in the spectacle and turning it into a gross burlesque. Somehow he felt that the girl who had invented it had meant, in the last analysis, something serious, and it was in her behalf that he would have liked to choke Bushwick. All the time he believed that Miss Macroyd, whose laugh sounded above the others, was somehow enjoying his indignation and divining its reason.
"Other questions, touching intemperance or divorce, the questioner will feel must not be asked; though it isn't necessary to more than suggest this, I hope; it will be left entirely to the good taste and good feeling of the—party. We all know what the temptations of South Dakota and the rum fiend are, and that to err is human, and forgive divine." He paused, having failed to get a laugh, but got it by asking, confidentially, "Where was I? Oh!"—he caught himself up—" I remember. Those of you who are in the habit of seeing ghosts need not be told that a ghost never speaks first; and those who have never met an apparition before, but are in the habit of going to the theatre, will recall the fact that in W. Shakespeare's beautiful play of 'Hamlet' the play could not have gone on after the first scene if Horatio had not spoken to the ghost of Hamlet's father and taken the chances of being snubbed. Here there are no chances of that kind; the chances are that you'll wish the ghost had not been entreated: I think that is the phrase."
In the laugh that followed a girl on Miss Macroyd's other hand audibly asked her, "Oh, isn't he too funny?"
"Delicious!" Miss Macroyd agreed. Verrian felt she said it to vex him.
"Now, there's just one other point," Bushwick resumed, "and then I have done. Only one question can be allowed to each person, but if the questioner is a lady she can ask a question and a half, provided she is not satisfied with the answer. In this case, however, she will only get half an answer. Now I have done, and if my arguments have convinced any one within the sound of my voice that our ghost really means business, I shall feel fully repaid for the pains and expense of getting up these few impromptu remarks, to which I have endeavored to give a humorous character, in order that you may all laugh your laugh out, and no unseemly mirth may interrupt the subsequent proceedings. We will now have a little music, and those who can recall my words will be allowed to sing them."
In the giggling and chatter which ensued the chords softly played passed into ears that might as well have been deaf; but at last there was a general quiescence of expectation, in which every one's eyes were strained to pierce through the gauze curtain to the sombre drapery beyond. The wait was so long that the tension relaxed and a whispering began, and Verrian felt a sickness of pity for the girl who was probably going to make a failure of it. He asked himself what could have happened to her. Had she lost courage? Or had her physical strength, not yet fully renewed, given way under the stress? Or had she, in sheer disgust for the turn the affair had been given by that brute Bushwick, thrown up the whole business? He looked round for Mrs. Westangle; she was not there; he conjectured—he could only conjecture—that she was absent conferring with Miss Shirley and trying to save the day.
A long, deeply sighed "Oh-h-h-h!" shuddering from many lips made him turn abruptly, and he saw, glimmering against the pall at the bottom of the darkened library, a figure vaguely white, in which he recognized a pose, a gesture familiar to him. For the others the figure was It, but for him it was preciously She. It was she, and she was going to carry it through; she was going to triumph, and not fail. A lump came into his 96 throat, and a mist blurred his eyes, which, when it cleared again, left him staring at nothing.
A girl's young voice uttered the common feeling, "Why, is that all?"
"It is, till some one asks the ghost a question; then it will reappear," Bushwick rose to say. "Will Miss Andrews kindly step forward and ask the question nearest her heart?"
"Oh no!" the girl answered, with a sincerity that left no one quite free to laugh.
"Some other lady, then?" Bushwick suggested. No one moved, and he added, "This is a difficulty which had been foreseen. Some gentleman will step forward and put the question next his heart." Again no one offered to go forward, and there was some muted laughter, which Bushwick checked. "This difficulty had been foreseen, too. I see that I shall have to make the first move, and all that I shall require of the audience is that I shall not be supposed to be in collusion with the illusion. I hope that after my experience, whatever it is, some young woman of courage will follow."
He passed into the foyer, and from that came into the library, where he showed against the dark background in an attitude of entreaty slightly burlesqued. The ghost reappeared.
"Shall I marry the woman I am thinking of?" he asked.
The phantom seemed to hesitate; it wavered like a pale reflection cast against the pall. Then, in the tones which Verrian knew, the answer came:
"Ask her. She will tell you."
The phantom had scored a hit, and the applause was silenced with difficulty; but Verrian felt that Miss Shirley had lost ground. It could not have been for the easy cleverness of such a retort that she had planned the affair. Yet, why not? He was taking it too seriously. It was merely business with her.
"And I haven't even the right to half a question more!" Bushwick lamented, in a dramatized dejection, and crossed slowly back from the library to his place.
"Why, haven't you got enough?" one of the men asked, amidst the gay clamor of the women.
The ghost was gone again, and its evanescence was discussed with ready wonder. Another of the men went round to tempt his fate, and the phantom suddenly reappeared so near him that he got a laugh by his start of dismay. "I forgot what I was going to ask, he faltered.
"I know what it was," the apparition answered. "You had better sell."
"But they say it will go to a hundred!" the man protested.
"No back—talk, Rogers!" Bushwick interposed. "That was the understanding.
"But we didn't understand," one of the girls said, coming to the rescue, "that the ghost was going to answer questions that were not asked. That would give us all away."
"Then the only thing is for you to go and ask before it gets a chance to answer," Bushwick said.
"Well, I will," the girl returned. And she swept round into the library, where she encountered the phantom with a little whoop as it started into sight before her. "I'm not going to be scared out of it!" she said, defiantly. "It's simply this: Did the person I suspect really take the ring."
The answer came, "Look on the floor under your dressing-table!"
"Well, if I find it there," the girl addressed the company, "I'm a spiritualist from this time forth." And she came back to her place, where she remained for some time explaining to those near how she had lately lost her ring and suspected her maid, whom she had dismissed.
Upon the whole, the effect was serious. The women, having once started, needed no more urging. One after another they confronted and questioned the oracle with increasing sincerity.
Miss Macroyd asked Verrian, "Hadn't you better take your chance and stop this flow of fatuity, Mr. Verrian?"
"I'm afraid I should be fatuous, too," he said. "But you?"
"Oh, thank you, I don't believe in ghosts, though this seems to be a very pretty one—very graceful, I mean. I suppose a graceful woman would be graceful even when a disembodied spirit. I should think she would be getting a little tried with all this questioning; but perhaps we're only reading the fatigue into her. The ghost may be merely overdone."
"It might easily be that," Verrian assented.
"Oh, may I ask it something now?" a girl's voice appealed to Bushwick. It was the voice of that Miss Andrews who had spoken first, and first refused to question the ghost. She was the youngest of Mrs. Westangle's guests, and Verrian had liked her, with a sense of something precious in the prolongation of a child's unconsciousness into the consciousness of girlhood which he found in her. She was always likelier than not to say the thing she thought and felt, whether it was silly and absurd, or whether, as also happened, there was a touch of inspired significance in it, as there is apt to be in the talk of children. She was laughed at, but she was liked, and the freshness of her soul was pleasant to the girls who were putting on the world as hard as they could. She could be trusted to do and say the unexpected. But she was considered a little morbid, and certainly she had an exaltation of the nerves that was at times almost beyond her control.
"Oh, dear!" Miss Macroyd whispered. "What is that strange simpleton going to do, I wonder?"
Verrian did not feel obliged to answer a question not addressed to him, but he, too, wondered and doubted.
The girl, having got her courage together, fluttered with it from her place round to the ghost's in a haste that expressed a fear that it might escape her if she delayed to put it to the test. The phantom was already there, as if it had waited her in the curiosity that followed her. They were taking each other seriously, the girl and the ghost, and if the ghost had been a veridical phantom, in which she could have believed with her whole soul, the girl could not have entreated it more earnestly, more simply.
She bent forward, in her slim, tall figure, with her hands outstretched, and with her tender voice breaking at times in her entreaty. "Oh, I don't know how to begin," she said, quite as if she and the phantom were alone together, and she had forgotten its supernatural awfulness in a sense of its human quality. "But you will understand, won't you! You'll think it very strange, and it is very unlike the others; but if I'm going to be serious—"
The white figure stood motionless; but Verrian interpreted its quiet as a kindly intelligence, and the girl made a fresh start in a note a little more piteous than before. "It's about the—the truth. Do you think if sometimes we don't tell it exactly, but we wish we had very, very much, it will come round somehow the same as if we had told it?"
"I don't understand," the phantom answered. "Say it again—or differently."
"Can our repentance undo it, or make the falsehood over into the truth?"
"Never!" the ghost answered, with a passion that thrilled to Verrian's heart.
"Oh, dear!" the girl said; and then, as if she had been going to continue, she stopped.
"You've still got your half-question, Miss Andrews," Bushwick interposed.
"Even if we didn't mean it to deceive harmfully?" the girl pursued. "If it was just on impulse, something we couldn't seem to help, and we didn't see it in its true light at the time—"
The ghost made no answer. It stood motionless.
"It is offended," Bushwick said, without knowing the Shakespearian words. "You've asked it three times half a question, Miss Andrews. Now, Mr. Verrian, it's your turn. You can ask it just one-quarter of a question. Miss Andrews has used up the rest of your share."
Verrian rose awkwardly and stood a long moment before his chair. Then he dropped back again, saying, dryly, "I don't think I want to ask it anything."
The phantom sank straight down as if sinking through the floor, but lay there like a white shawl trailed along the bottom of the dark curtain.
"And is that all?" Miss Macroyd asked Verrian. "I was just getting up my courage to go forward. But now, I suppose—"
"Oh, dear!" Miss Andrews called out. "Perhaps it's fainted. Hadn't we better—"
There were formless cries from the women, and the men made a crooked rush forward, in which Verrian did not join. He remained where he had risen, with Miss Macroyd beside him.
"Perhaps it's only a coup de theatre!" she said, with her laugh. "Better wait."
Bushwick was gathering the prostrate figure up. "She has fainted!" he called. "Get some water, somebody!"
The early Monday morning train which brought Verrian up to town was so very early that he could sit down to breakfast with his mother only a little later than their usual hour.
She had called joyfully to him from her room, when she heard the rattling of his key as he let himself into the apartment, and, after an exchange of greetings, shouted back and forth before they saw each other, they could come at once to the history of his absence over their coffee. "You must have had a very good time, to stay so long. After you wrote that you would not be back Thursday, I expected it would be Saturday till I got your telegram. But I'm glad you stayed. You certainly needed the rest."
"Yes, if those things are ever a rest." He looked down at his cup while he stirred the coffee in it, and she studied his attitude, since she could not see his face fully, for the secret of any vital change that might have come upon him. It could be that in the interval since she had seen him he had seen the woman who was to take him from her. She was always preparing herself for that, knowing that it must come almost as certainly as death, and knowing that with all her preparation she should not be ready for it. "I've got rather a long story to tell you and rather a strange story," he said, lifting his head and looking round, but not so impersonally that his mother did not know well enough to say to the Swedish serving-woman:
"You needn't stay, Margit. I'll give Mr. Philip his breakfast. Well!" she added, when they were alone.
"Well," he returned, with a smile that she knew he was forcing, "I have seen the girl that wrote that letter."
"Not Jerusha Brown?"
"Not Jerusha Brown, but the girl all the same."
"Now go on, Philip, and don't miss a single word!" she commanded him, with an imperious breathlessness. "You know I won't hurry you or interrupt you, but you must—you really must-tell me everything. Don't leave out the slightest detail."
"I won't," he said. But she was aware, from time to time, that she was keeping her word better than he was keeping his, in his account of meeting Miss Shirley and all the following events.
"You can imagine," he said, "what a sensation the swooning made, and the commotion that followed it."
"Yes, I can imagine that," she answered. But she was yet so faithful that she would not ask him to go on.
He continued, unasked, "I don't know just how, now, to account for its coming into my head that it was Miss Andrews who was my unknown correspondent. I suppose I've always unconsciously expected to meet that girl, and Miss Andrews's hypothetical case was psychologically so parallel—"
"And I've sometimes been afraid that I judged it too harshly—that it was a mere girlish freak without any sort of serious import."
"I was sometimes afraid so, Philip. But—"
"And I don't believe now that the hypothetical case brought any intolerable stress of conscience upon Miss Shirley, or that she fainted from any cause but exhaustion from the general ordeal. She was still weak from the sickness she had been through—too weak to bear the strain of the work she had taken up. Of course, the catastrophe gave the whole surface situation away, and I must say that those rather banal young people behaved very humanely about it. There was nothing but interest of the nicest kind, and, if she is going on with her career, it will be easy enough for her to find engagements after this."
"Why shouldn't she go on?" his mother asked, with a suspicion which she kept well out of sight.
"Well, as well as she could explain afterwards, the catastrophe took her work out of the category of business and made her acceptance in it a matter of sentiment."
"She explained it to you herself?"
"Yes, the general sympathy had penetrated to Mrs. Westangle, though I don't say that she had been more than negatively indifferent to Miss Shirley's claim on her before. As it was, she sent for me to her room the next morning, and I found Miss Shirley alone there. She said Mrs. Westangle would be down in a moment."
Now, indeed, Mrs. Verrian could not govern herself from saying, "I don't like it, Philip."
"I knew you wouldn't. It was what I said to myself at the time. You were so present with me that I seemed to have you there chaperoning the interview." His mother shrugged, and he went on: "She said she wished to tell me something first, and then she said, 'I want to do it while I have the courage, if it's courage; perhaps it's just desperation. I am Jerusha Brown.'"
His mother began, "But you said—" and then stopped herself.
"I know that I said she wasn't, but she explained, while I sat there rather mum, that there was really another girl, and that the other girl's name was really Jerusha Brown. She was the daughter of the postmaster in the village where Miss Shirley was passing the summer. In fact, Miss Shirley was boarding in the postmaster's family, and the girls had become very friendly. They were reading my story together, and talking about it, and trying to guess how it would come out, just as the letter said, and they simultaneously hit upon the notion of writing to me. It seemed to them that it would be a good joke—I'm not defending it, mother, and I must say Miss Shirley didn't defend it, either—to work upon my feelings in the way they tried, and they didn't realize what they had done till Armiger's letter came. It almost drove them wild, she said; but they had a lucid interval, and they took the letter to the girl's father and told him what they had done. He was awfully severe with them for their foolishness, and said they must write to Armiger at once and confess the fact. Then they said they had written already, and showed him the second letter, and explained they had decided to let Miss Brawn write it in her person alone for the reason she gave in it. But Miss Shirley told him she was ready to take her full share of the blame, and, if anything came of it, she authorized him to put the whole blame on her."
Verrian made a pause which his mother took for invitation or permission to ask, "And was he satisfied with that?"
"I don't know. I wasn't, and it's only just to Miss Shirley to say that she wasn't, either. She didn't try to justify it to me; she merely said she was so frightened that she couldn't have done anything. She may have realized more than the Brown girl what they had done."
"The postmaster, did he regard it as anything worse than foolishness?"
"I don't believe he did. At any rate, he was satisfied with what his daughter had done in owning up."
"Well, I always liked that girl's letter. And did they show him your letter?"
"It seems that they did."
"And what did he say about that?"
"I suppose, what I deserved. Miss Shirley wouldn't say, explicitly. He wanted to answer it, but they wouldn't let him. I don't know but I should feel better if he had. I haven't been proud of that letter of mine as time has gone on, mother; I think I behaved very narrow-mindedly, very personally in it."
"You behaved justly."
"Justly? I thought you had your doubts of that. At any rate, I had when it came to hearing the girl accusing herself as if she had been guilty of some monstrous wickedness, and I realized that I had made her feel so."
"She threw herself on your pity!"
"No, she didn't, mother. Don't make it impossible for me to tell you just how it was."
"I won't. Go on."
"I don't say she was manly about it; that couldn't be, but she was certainly not throwing herself on my pity, unless—unless—"
"Unless you call it so for her to say that she wanted to own up to me, because she could have no rest till she had done so; she couldn't put it behind her till she had acknowledged it; she couldn't work; she couldn't get well."
He saw his mother trying to consider it fairly, and in response he renewed his own resolution not to make himself the girl's advocate with her, but to continue the dispassionate historian of the case. At the same time his memory was filled with the vision of how she had done and said the things he was telling, with what pathos, with what grace, with what beauty in her appeal. He saw the tears that came into her eyes at times and that she indignantly repressed as she hurried on in the confession which she was voluntarily making, for there was no outward stress upon her to say anything. He felt again the charm of the situation, the sort of warmth and intimacy, but he resolved not to let that feeling offset the impartiality of his story.
"No, I don't say she threw herself on your mercy," his mother said, finally. "She needn't have told you anything."
"Except for the reason she gave—that she couldn't make a start for herself till she had done so. And she has got her own way to make; she is poor. Of course, you may say her motive was an obsession, and not a reason."
"There's reality in it, whatever it is; it's a genuine motive," Mrs. Verrian conceded.
"I think so," Verrian said, in a voice which he tried to keep from sounding too grateful.
Apparently his mother did not find it so. She asked, "What had been the matter with her, did she say?"
"In her long sickness? Oh! A nervous fever of some sort."
"From worrying about that experience?"
Verrian reluctantly admitted, "She said it made her want to die. I don't suppose we can quite realize—"
"We needn't believe everything she said to realize that she suffered. But girls exaggerate their sufferings. I suppose you told her not to think of it any more?"
Verrian gave an odd laugh. "Well, not unconditionally. I tried to give her my point of view. And I stipulated that she should tell Jerusha Brown all about it, and keep her from having a nervous fever, too."
"That was right. You must see that even cowardice couldn't excuse her selfishness in letting that girl take all the chances."
"And I'm afraid I was not very unselfish myself in my stipulations," Verrian said, with another laugh. "I think that I wanted to stand well with the postmaster."
There was a note of cynical ease in this which Mrs. Verrian found morally some octaves lower than the pitch of her son's habitual seriousness in what concerned himself, but she could not make it a censure to him. "And you were able to reassure her, so that she needn't think of it any more?"
"What would you have wished me to do?" he returned, dryly. "Don't you think she had suffered enough?"
"Oh, in this sort of thing it doesn't seem the question of suffering. If there's wrong done the penalty doesn't right it."
The notion struck Verrian's artistic sense. "That's true. That would make the 'donnee' of a strong story. Or a play. It's a drama of fate. It's Greek. But I thought we lived under another dispensation."
"Will she try to get more of the kind of thing she was doing for Mrs. Westangle at once? Or has she some people?"
"No; only friends, as I understand."
"Where is she from? Up country?"
"No, she's from the South."
"I don't like Southerners!"
"I know you don't, mother. But you must honor the way they work and get on when they come North and begin doing for themselves. Besides, Miss Shirley's family went South after the war—"
"Oh, not even a REAL Southerner!"
"I know! I'm not fair. I ought to beg her pardon. And I ought to be glad it's all over. Shall you see her again?"
"It might happen. But I don't know how or when. We parted friends, but we parted strangers, so far as any prevision of the future is concerned," Verrian said.
His mother drew a long breath, which she tried to render inaudible. "And the girl that asked her the strange questions, did you see her again?"
"Oh yes. She had a curious fascination. I should like to tell you about her. Do you think there's such a thing as a girl's being too innocent?"
"It isn't so common as not being innocent enough."
"But it's more difficult?"
"I hope you'll never find it so, my son," Mrs. Verrian said. And for the first time she was intentionally personal. "Go on."
"About Miss Andrews?"
"Whichever you please."
"She waylaid me in the afternoon, as I was coming home from a walk, and wanted to talk with me about Miss Shirley."
"I suppose Miss Shirley was the day's heroine after what had happened?"
"The half-day's, or quarter-day's heroine, perhaps. She left on the church train for town yesterday morning soon after I saw her. Miss Andrews seemed to think I was an authority on the subject, and she approached me with a large-eyed awe that was very amusing, though it was affecting, too. I suppose that girls must have many worships for other girls before they have any worship for a man. This girl couldn't separate Miss Shirley, on the lookout for another engagement, from the psychical part she had played. She raved about her; she thought she was beautiful, and she wanted to know all about her and how she could help her. Miss Andrews's parents are rich but respectable, I understand, and she's an only child. I came in for a share of her awe; she had found out that I was not only not Verrian the actor, but an author of the same name, and she had read my story with passionate interest, but apparently in that unliterary way of many people without noticing who wrote it; she seemed to have thought it was Harding Davis or Henry James; she wasn't clear which. But it was a good deal to have had her read it at all in that house; I don't believe anybody else had, except Miss Shirley and Miss Macroyd."
Mrs. Verrian deferred a matter that would ordinarily have interested her supremely to an immediate curiosity. "And how came she to think you would know so much about Miss Shirley?"
Verrian frowned. "I think from Miss Macroyd. Miss Macroyd seems to have taken a grandmotherly concern in my affairs through the whole week. Perhaps she resented having behaved so piggishly at the station the day we came, and meant to take it out of Miss Shirley and myself. She had seen us together in the woods, one day, and she must have told it about. Mrs. Westangle wouldn't have spoken of us together, because she never speaks of anything unless it is going to count; and there was no one else who knew of our acquaintance."
"Why, my son, if you went walking in the woods with the girl, any one might have seen you."
"I didn't. It was quite by accident that we met there. Miss Shirley was anxious to keep her presence in the house a secret from everybody."
Mrs. Verrian would not take any but the open way, with this. She would not deal indirectly, with it, or in any wise covertly or surreptitiously. "It seems to me that Miss Shirley has rather a fondness for secrecy," she said.
"I think she has," Verrian admitted. "Though, in this case, it was essential to the success of her final scheme. But she is a curious study. I suppose that timidity is at the bottom of all fondness for secrecy, isn't it?"
"I don't know. She doesn't seem to be timid in everything."
"Say it out, mother!" Verrian challenged her with a smile. "You're not timid, anyway!"
"She had the courage to join in that letter, but not the courage to own her part in it. She was brave enough to confess that she had been sick of a nervous fever from the answer you wrote to the Brown girl, but she wouldn't have been brave enough to confess anything at all if she had believed she would be physically or morally strong enough to keep it."
"Perhaps nobody—nobody but you, mother—is brave in the right time and place."
She knew that this was not meant in irony. "I am glad you say that, Philip."
"It's only your due. But aren't you a little too hard upon cowards, at times? For the sort of person she is, if you infer the sort from the worst appearance she has made in the whole business, I think she has done pretty well."
"Why had she left the Brown girl to take all your resentment alone for the last six or eight months?"
"She may have thought that she was getting her share of the punishment in the fever my resentment brought on?"
"Philip, do you really believe that her fever, if she had one, came from that?"
"I think she believes it, and there's no doubt but she was badly scared."
"Oh, there's no doubt of that!"
"But come, mother, why should we take her at the worst? Of course, she has a complex nature. I see that as clearly as you do. I don't believe we look at her diversely, in the smallest particular. But why shouldn't a complex nature be credited with the same impulses towards the truth as a single nature? Why shouldn't we allow that Miss Shirley had the same wish to set herself right with me as Miss Andrews would have had in her place?"
"I dare say she wished to set herself right with you, but not from the same wish that Miss Andrews would have had. Miss Andrews would not have wished you to know the truth for her own sake. Her motive would have been direct-straight."
"Yes; and we will describe her as a straight line, and Miss Shirley as a waving line. Why shouldn't the waving line, at its highest points, touch the same altitude as the straight line?"
"It wouldn't touch it all the time, and in character, or nature, as you call it, that is the great thing. It's at the lowest points that the waving line is dangerous."
"Well, I don't deny that. But I'm anxious to be just to a person who hasn't experienced a great deal of mercy for what, after all, wasn't such a very heinous thing as I used to think it. You must allow that she wasn't obliged to tell me anything about herself."
"Yes, she was, Philip. As I said before, she hadn't the physical or moral strength to keep it from you when she was brought face to face with you. Besides—" Mrs. Verrian hesitated.
"Out with it, mother! We, at least, won't have any concealments."
"She may have thought, she could clinch it in that way."
"You know. Is she pretty?"
"That can always be managed. Is she tall?"
"NO, I think she's rather out of style there; she's rather petite."
"And what's her face like?"
"Well, she has no particular complexion, but it's not thick. Her eyes are the best of her, though there isn't much of them. They're the 'waters on a starry night' sort, very sweet and glimmering. She has a kind of ground-colored hair and a nice little chin. Her mouth helps her eyes out; it looks best when she speaks; it's pathetic in the play of the lips."
"I see," Mrs. Verrian said.
The following week Verrian and his mother were at a show of paintings, in the gallery at the rear of a dealer's shop, and while they were bending together to look at a picture he heard himself called to in a girlish voice, "Oh, Mr. Verrian!" as if his being there was the greatest wonder in the world.
His mother and he lifted themselves to encounter a tall, slim girl, who was stretching her hand towards him, and who now cried out, joyously, "Oh, Mr. Verrian, I thought it must be you, but I was afraid it wasn't as soon as I spoke. Oh, I'm so glad to see you; I want so much to have you know my mother—Mr. Verrian," she said, presenting him.
"And I you mine," Verrian responded, in a violent ellipse, and introduced his own mother, who took in the fact of Miss Andrews's tall thinness, topped with a wide, white hat and waving white plumes, and her little face, irregular and somewhat gaunt, but with a charm in the lips and eyes which took the elder woman's heart with pathos. She made talk with Mrs. Andrews, who affected one as having the materials of social severity in her costume and manner.
"Oh, I didn't believe I should ever see you again," the girl broke out impulsively upon Verrian. "Oh, I wanted to ask you so about Miss Shirley. Have you seen her since you got back?"
"No," Verrian said, "I haven't seen her."
"Oh, I thought perhaps you had. I've been to the address that Mrs. Westangle gave me, but she isn't there any more; she's gone up into Harlem somewhere, and I haven't been able to call again. Oh, I do feel so anxious about her. Oh, I do hope she isn't ill. Do you think she is?"
"I don't believe so," Verrian began. But she swept over his prostrate remark.
"Oh, Mr. Verrian, don't you think she's wonderful? I've been telling mother about it, and I don't feel at all the way she does. Do you?"
"How does she feel? I must know that before I say."
"Why, of course! I hadn't told you! She thinks it was a make-up between Miss Shirley and that Mr. Bushwick. But I say it couldn't have been. Do you think it could?"
Verrian found the suggestion so distasteful, for a reason which he did not quite seize himself, that he answered, resentfully, "It could have been, but I don't think it was."
"I will tell her what you say. Oh, may I tell her what you say?"
"I don't see why you shouldn't. It isn't very important, either way, is it?"
"Oh, don't you think so? Not if it involved pretending what wasn't true?"
She bent towards him in such anxious demand that he could not help smiling.
"The whole thing was a pretence, wasn't it?" he suggested.
"Yes, but that would have been a pretence that we didn't know of."
"It would be incriminating to that extent, certainly," Verrian owned, ironically. He found the question of Miss Shirley's blame for the collusion as distasteful as the supposition of the collusion, but there was a fascination in the innocence before him, and he could not help playing with it.
Sometimes Miss Andrews apparently knew that he was playing with her innocence, and sometimes she did not. But in either case she seemed to like being his jest, from which she snatched a fearful joy. She was willing to prolong the experience, and she drifted with him from picture to picture, and kept the talk recurrently to Miss Shirley and the phenomena of Seeing Ghosts.
Her mother and Mrs. Verrian evidently got on together better than either of them at first expected. When it came to their parting, through Mrs. Andrews's saying that she must be going, she shook hands with Mrs. Verrian and said to Philip, "I am so glad to have met you, Mr. Verrian. Will you come and see us?"
"Yes, thank you," he answered, taking the hand she now offered him, and then taking Miss Andrews's hand, while the girl's eyes glowed with pleasure. "I shall be very glad."
"Oh, shall you?" she said, with her transparent sincerity. "And you won't forget Thursdays! But any day at five we have tea."
"Thank you," Verrian said. "I might forget the Thursdays, but I couldn't forget all the days of the week."
Miss Andrews laughed and blushed at once. "Then we shall expect you every day."
"Well, every day but Thursday," he promised.
When the mother and daughter had gone Mrs. Verrian said, "She is a great admirer of yours, Philip. She's read your story, and I suspect she wants an opportunity to talk with you about it."
"You mean Mrs. Andrews?"
"Yes. I suppose the daughter hasn't waited for an opportunity. The mother had read that publisher's paragraph about your invalid, and wanted to know if you had ever heard from her again. Women are personal in their literary interests."
Philip asked, in dismay, "You didn't give it away did you, mother?"
"Certainly not, my dear. You have brought me up too carefully."
"Of course. I didn't imagine you had."
Then, as they could not pretend to look at the pictures any longer, they went away, too. Their issue into the open air seemed fraught with novel emotion for Mrs. Verrian. "Well, now," she said, "I have seen the woman I would be willing my son should marry."
"Child, you mean," Philip said, not pretending that he did not know she meant Miss Andrews.
"That girl," his mother returned, "is innocence itself. Oh, Philip, dear, do marry her!"
"Well, I don't know. If her mother is behaving as sagely with her as you are with me the chances are that she won't let me. Besides, I don't know that I want to marry quite so much innocence."
"She is conscience incarnate," his mother uttered, perfervidly. "You could put your very soul in her keeping."
"Then you would be out of a job, mother."
"Oh, I am not worthy of the job, my dear. I have always felt that. I am too complex, and sometimes I can't see the right alone, as she could."
Philip was silent a moment while he lost the personal point of view. "I suspect we don't see the right when we see it alone. We ought to see the wrong, too."
"Ah, Philip, don't let your fancy go after that girl!"
"Miss Andrews? I thought—"
"Don't you be complex, my dear. You know I mean Miss Shirley. What has become of her, I wonder. I heard Miss Andrews asking you."
"I wasn't able to tell her. Do you want me to try telling you?"
"I would rather you never could."
Philip laughed sardonically. "Now, I shall forget Thursdays and all the other days, too. You are a very unwise parent, mother."
They laughed with each other at each other, and treated her enthusiasm for Miss Andrews as the joke it partly was. Mrs. Verrian did not follow him up about her idol, and a week or so later she was able to affect a decent surprise when he came in at the end of an afternoon and declined the cup of tea she proposed on the ground that he had been taking a cup of tea with the Andrewses. "You have really been there?"
"Didn't you expect me to keep my promise?"
"But I was afraid I had put a stumbling-block in the way."
"Oh, I found I could turn the consciousness you created in me into literary material, and so I was rather eager to go. I have got a point for my new story out of it. I shall have my fellow suffer all I didn't suffer in meeting the girl he knows his mother wants him to marry. I got on very well with those ladies. Mrs. Andrews is the mother of innocence, but she isn't innocence. She managed to talk of my story without asking about the person who wanted to anticipate the conclusion. That was what you call complex. She was insincere; it was the only thing she wanted to talk about."
"I don't believe it, Philip. But what did Miss Andrews talk about?"
"Well, she is rather an optimistic conscience. She talked about books and plays that some people do not think are quite proper. I have a notion that, where the point involved isn't a fact of her own experience, she is not very severe about it. You think that would be quite safe for me?"
"Philip, I don't like your making fun of her!"
"Oh, she wasn't insipid; she was only limpid. I really like her, and, as for reverencing her, of course I feel that in a way she is sacred." He added, after a breath, "Too sacred. We none of us can expect to marry Eve before the Fall now; perhaps we have got over wanting to."
"You are very perverse, my dear. But you will get over that."
"Don't take away my last defence, mother."
Verrian began to go rather regularly to the Andrews house, or, at least, he was accused of doing it by Miss Macroyd when, very irregularly, he went one day to see her. "How did you know it?" he asked.
"I didn't say I knew it. I only wished to know it. Now I am satisfied. I met another friend of yours on Sunday." She paused for him to ask who; but he did not ask. "I see you are dying to know what friend: Mr. Bushwick."
"Oh, he's a good-fellow. I wonder I don't run across him."
"Perhaps that's because you never call on Miss Shirley." Miss Macroyd waited for this to take effect, but he kept a glacial surface towards her, and she went on:
"They were walking together in the park at noon. I suppose they had been to church together."
Verrian manifested no more than a polite interest in the fact. He managed so well that he confirmed Miss Macroyd in a tacit conjecture. She went on: "Miss Shirley was looking quite blooming for her. But so was he, for that matter. Why don't you ask if they inquired for you?"
"I thought you would tell me without."
"I will tell you if he did. He was very cordial in his inquiries; and I had to pretend, to gratify him, that you were very well. I implied that you came here every Tuesday, but your Thursdays were dedicated to Miss Andrews."
"You are a clever woman, Miss Macroyd. I should never have thought of so much to say on such an uninteresting subject. And Miss Shirley showed no curiosity?"
"Ah, she is a clever woman, too. She showed the prettiest kind of curiosity—so perfectly managed. She has a studio—I don't know just how she puts it to use—with a painter girl in one of those studio apartment houses on the West Side: The Veronese, I believe. You must go and see her; I'll let you have next Tuesday off; Tuesday's her day, too."
"You are generosity itself, Miss Macroyd."
"Yes, there's nothing mean about me," she returned, in slang rather older than she ordinarily used. "If you're not here next Tuesday I shall know where you are."